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Teamwork Counts (A Lot!)

Voice of ExperienceIn this week's Voice of Experience essay, educator Max Fischer draws parallels between his days as a high school football player and his role on a team responsible for creating an IEP that will get to the bottom of -- and solve -- a student's learning issues. In both cases, teamwork is key; no room exists for prima donnas.

Max W. Fischer

I consider my days playing high school football among my most cherished memories. The value of hard work and the determination to pick oneself up off the turf after a rough play are among the lessons learned on the football field that pay huge dividends as an adolescent transitions into adulthood. The most lasting lesson off all, however, is what football taught me about the importance of teamwork in accomplishing a common goal.

In recent years, the public and press have come to distort education's role. They would have everyone believe that it's all about test scores. Teachers and other members of the education team know that our roles go far deeper than that, however, and that fact is at no time more apparent than when we work with students who have physiological, emotional, or social concerns that impede learning. Just as a football team depends upon eleven individuals to successfully complete their missions, teachers and other educators must collaborate to help students overcome -- or, at least learn to compensate for -- their learning challenges.


In the school setting, nurses, counselors, psychologists, administrators, tutors -- and especially parents -- must come together to foster the best possible learning environment for a student who faces obstacles to learning. If such a thing as ground rules for teamwork existed in those cases, experience has taught me that those rules would have to include the following:

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    Put all legitimate possibilities on the table. Although the classroom teacher might be the impetus for bringing together the team, the first step in establishing a learning plan for a student must involve all stakeholders. An initial brainstorming session must assume that all ideas are possibilities. No individual's idea should be rejected outright until verifiable evidence exists that it does not apply. No member of the team can hold back from expressing legitimate observations about a student's learning or behavior. When a parent wonders aloud why a child who is so smart doesn't eagerly attack his or her studies, it would be malfeasance for a teacher or another professional to sit on test results that indicate the student has trouble reading or has some other obstacle that should be among the first addressed. All possibilities must come forth.
  • Avoid arrogance. Just as a prima donna athlete can be cancerous to a team's success, so too can a teacher who ignores the expertise parents have about their children be cancerous to a student's success. A teacher can't fall into the trap of assuming that, after working with a student for several months, he grasps the student's whole story. As specialists, we readily observe the symptoms of a poor learner. Yet, as a doctor who must look beyond the simple symptoms for a more serious physical condition, so teachers must be open to the many possibilities behind a student's poor performance. Sometimes, decades of teaching experience must give way to the insight a parent or another has for the child.
  • Appreciate the contributions the rest of the team can make. All parties must comprehend that the input of others comes from slightly different, but no less important, perspectives. Psychologists have the training and expertise to conduct diagnoses that can help unravel emotional, physiological, and cognitive issues. They are also more aware of state laws regarding special education. Nurses provide the link to the medical community. They funnel critical observations between school, home, and local physicians; and their role in administering medications is vital. Counselors often serve as the coordinating hub for the team's activity. Of course, parents are the most valuable link in the team's chain.
  • Patience is a virtue. Unraveling an individual child's learning issues is akin to unraveling the telecommunications wiring in a skyscraper. Both are complex. As every educator who has been part of an IEP process knows, team meetings aimed at diagnosing and planning adjustments to a student's learning program can be time consuming and frustrating. When the going is toughest, it is most important for everybody involved to keep their eyes on the goal: those meetings can result in significant rewards for the child involved if the adults stay focused and relentless in zeroing in on empirical data and observed behavior. Possible, realistic interventions must be fully discussed -- and exhausted -- before consideration is given to placing a student in an alternative learning program.

As the center on the offensive line on my high school football team, I played a relatively anonymous position. Yet when I didn't work effectively with the other ten players, the coaches -- if not the entire stadium -- knew exactly where to point the finger. As a teacher, my role is almost as anonymous, but it is just as entwined with the roles of all the other members of my students' teaching team. If I don't interact effectively on this team, the results may reverberate well into the child's future.

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient and medieval history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.

Article by Max Fischer
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